The 24 Seven Guide: Keep the balls rolling

The principles of Crown Green and boules may be the same, but British and French attitudes could hardly be further apart. Daniel Synge gets jack high on bowls and petanque
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In the distance, you can almost hear the grunts of Wimbledon's new generation of racket-wielding super-beings as the adrenalin stakes are raised on the centre court. Here at Putney Town Bowls Club, the plastic spectators' seats are neatly stacked up by the rose bushes and the only rush is to the bar as last orders beckon.

Engrossed in a newspaper is ex-England Lawn Bowls champion, Tony O'Connell. "I hear you fancy a roll up," he says finishing his beer and leading me out to the lawn. This turns out not to be an invitation to get out the Rizlas, but to join him in a game of bowls.

Out on the green, the players in their white sun hats and flat, brown shoes seem fixed to the turf as they wait for their turn to deliver. A Spanish Armada sailing up the Thames would probably go unnoticed. "Lovely line, just the weight," says one, as his partner's wood narrowly misses the jack.

Although round in appearance, on closer inspection the woods are in fact aspherical, with one side more heavily weighted than the other, an idiosyncrasy which enables the bowler to roll it towards the jack with bias or curve.

Legend goes that such balls were first used in the 16th century by Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who in the course of a game, hastily replaced a broken wood with a decorative globe which had been unceremoniously hacked off from one of his stately banisters.

"People expire, balls don't," says Tony, inferring that today a cheap set of second-hand woods can be found at any local bowls club. So too is a willing instructor.

Jack Harper, a retired sergeant major, is warming up for an evening competition, but offers 10 minutes of his time to demonstrate the rudiments of the game. "Always watch your wood and don't forget to follow through," he explains, after my first ball thuds into the ditch behind. "That's a better weight," he adds, following my next draw shot, the wood still yards from the target.

"You'll get the hang of it with more practice," insists Tony back in the bar. He is due back at work soon, driving his black taxi cab into the rush-hour traffic. "Is bowls quite as stuffy as people imagine?," I ask before he leaves. "The sport is stifled with administrators, especially in the women's clubs, where hats must be worn at all times. But bowls inspires good fellowship, it's competitive as you want it to be, and can be played by anybody from the cradle to the grave."

Jack, who is 70 next year, continues to rehearse his shots up and down the green with regimental vigour. I thank him for the lesson. "It's a fascinating game," he shouts, "and if you ever get to my age, take it up."

Ask a Frenchman for a game of lawn bowls and in reply you'll get a customary Gallic shrug followed by the sort of hostile reaction previously reserved for our beef. "The dress code and the rules are so British, and you're not even allowed to drink. We're a bit too casual for that," says Bruno Laurent, captain of Le Bouchon petanque team, over a glass of pastis in his Battersea restaurant.

Any remaining national pride takes a further battering with the French view that Drake's Plymouth Hoe was not the manicured velvet lawn that some artists have depicted, but exactly the kind of bare, stony soil that petanque thrives on. Was Drake's famous sang froid really revealed during a game now favoured by berated, Gauloise-smoking peasants in the South of France?

Grabbing a sack of boules from the back of his car he suggests that we go to a local park where there is an ideal boules playing area, but first he orders a bottle of white wine and four glasses from the bar - essential accessories for going on the piste.

Usually organised in teams of three, but played in any combination, each player has three metal boules and takes turns in throwing them as near as possible to the jack or cochonnet. Unlike bowls, these balls are launched through the air by flicking the wrist upwards while standing in a slightly crouched position.

To start the game, my partner Bruno draws a circle in the gravel, from where the players stand with their feet together (pieds-tanques). Then he throws the small wooden cochonnet a distance of between nine to twelve metres.

Our two opponents immediately take the lead, with Jean Philippe's cannonballs scattering our most promising throws with deadly metallic cracks. We can only watch as sparks fly off the stones and his balls land like bouncing bombs.

In an attempt to get back into the game, I follow Bruno's maxim "boule devant, boule d'argent" (a ball in front of the jack is as valuable as silver), and Bruno himself resorts to distracting their concentration with a volley of obscenities straight out of the backstreets of Marseilles, where the current game originates.

This, alas, fails to stop Jean Philippe, the breton-shirted wonder from making sure his wily partner Edward's boule always lies closer to the cochonnet once everyone has thrown, and as darkness begins to fall, we are facing a demoralising 13-5 defeat.

Later, over vin rouge and steak frites, the team seem happy enough with their first get-together of the season, but they will face sterner competition in Battersea Park's annual boules competition, where more than 1,000 boule- hurling Francophiles gather every year.

Just how seriously the petanque or bowls is played up and down the country this summer will be entirely up to individual players. "Last year the lunch was so good we didn't even make it to the semi-final," recalls Bruno, "I don't know how some people can call it a sport."

WHERE TO WATCH LAWN BOWLS

8th Womens World Bowls Championship, 3-18 Aug

31 countries represented in the highlight of the women's bowls calendar. Victoria Park, Archery Road, Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

National Bowls Championship, 18-31 Aug

Teams of four, three, two and singles do battle for probably the most coveted prize in bowls. Beach House Park, Worthing, Sussex

Middleton Cup, 31 Aug

Inter-county championship matches with up to 24 players a side. Beach House Park, Worthing, Sussex

National Junior Singles, 1 Sept

Who will become the next David Bryant or Tony Allcock as the bowling world's young pretenders aim for jack high? Beach House Park, Worthing, Sussex

For information about your local club or any of the above events phone the English Bowls Association on 01903 820222 or the English Womens Bowling Association on 01297 21317

WHERE TO WATCH CROWN GREEN BOWLS

Junior All England Championships, 18 Aug

Dunlop's Bowling Club, Erdington, Birmingham

Dennis Mowers `Champion of Champions', 21 Sept

Waterloo Hotel, Blackpool, Lancashire

There are about 4,000 clubs playing the Grown Green game. For details telephone the British Crown Green Bowling Association on 0151-526 8367

WHERE TO WATCH FEDERATION BOWLS

National Championships 17-24 Aug

Sun Castle Greens, North Parade, Skegness, Lincolnshire

There are 750 clubs playing Federation Bowls. For details telephone the English Bowling Federation on 0114-247 7763

WHERE TO PLAY BOULES

The 1996 British Open Boules Championship

A unique opportunity to challenge the finest boules players in Britain and the continent; the events are based at popular seaside resorts leading to the final which is held on the Isle of Wight in September. The matches are played in triples and the winners are expected to earn pounds 17,000 in prize money.

Remaining open events:

Hadlands Hotel, Newquay, Cornwall, 10 Aug

The Dome, Morecambe, Lancashire, 11 Aug

Ashford, Kent, 31 Aug

Le Friquet, Guernsey, 1 Sept

Westridge Leisure Centre, Ryde, Isle of Wight, 14-15 Sept

Entry forms from the British Petanque Association on 01203 421408

OTHER BOULES EVENTS

Inter Regional Championships, 7-8 Aug

Sandown, Isle of Wight

Guernsey Open, 21 Sept

Le Friquet, Guernsey

National Singles, 22 Sept

Haycock Hotel, Wansford, Cambridgeshire

HOW TO TALK BOWLS

Woods: bowls

Rink: area of the green where the play takes place

Jack: white ball towards which play is directed

Bias: an inbuilt weight in the wood causing it to travel in a curve

Fire/drive: a bowl delivered at a very fast pace

Toucher: a bowl which has touched the jack

A plant shot: bowling a wood to deliberately strike the other wood in line with the jack.

Cobbing: colloquial term used in Crown Green Bowls when the ball is thrown over puddles.

HOW TO TALK BOULES

Cochonnet: the jack or target ball, literally translated "little pig".

Piste: the terrain where the match takes place.

Plomber: a ball that lands dead on the ground without rolling.

Carreau: a direct hit upon your opponent's boule knocking it out of the way.

Tireur: boules thrower.

Belle: the final or deciding game.

Pousse-pousse: a shot in which you use an opponents boule to deflect your boule closer to the cochonnet while knocking theirs further away.

La Lyonnaise: the long-ball game as played in Lyon.

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